The dramatic love story of Barbara Radziwiłł and Sigismund II Augustus, the last king of Poland in the Jagiellonian dynasty kindled the imagination of many artists and became the subject of many works of literature. Sigismund’s secret wedding to Barbara in 1547 sparked a scandal. Popular opinion saw the union as a misalliance and an affront to the state of Poland. The reason was that the king’s betrothed, despite being from an esteemed Lithuanian family, was in fact a noble of the lowest order. Only after a long struggle with his mother and parliament did Sigismund II Augustus manage to bring about Barbara’s coronation in 1550. Giving the story a tragic ending was the young queen’s premature death a mere six months after her coronation, having never issued an heir to the throne. Some artists approached these events from the emotional perspective, choosing to focus on the grand love story above all else. Others, preferred to emphasise Barbara’s destructive influence on the young king, which hastened the fall of Poland’s ruling house and the eventual loss of the country’s sovereignty.
It was on commission of the well-known collector Leopold Burczak-Abramowicz that Józef Simmler produced the painting, having found inspiration in Alojzy Feliński’s then-popular romantic tragedy titled Barbara Radziwiłłówna, written in the early nineteenth century. For the subject of his painting, the artist chose the moment of the young queen’s death. The end of her life is symbolised by the censer on the floor and the closed prayer book on the chair. The only suggestion of regal splendour is the bedspread lined in ermine fur.
The painting was exhibited in 1860 to tremendous acclaim, solidifying Simmler as a leading artist of his day. Its success lay not solely in the subject it depicts but also in its artistic quality, the understated colours and the perfectly rendered details. The painting was purchased with monetary contributions from art lovers for the fledgling collection of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Art in Warsaw, with Burczak-Abramowicz receiving a scaled-down reproduction from the artist.